WASHINGTON — Is there anything more depressing than a cheerful liberal? The question is prompted by one such, historian David Goldfield, who has written a large-hearted book explaining that America’s problems would yield to government’s deft ameliorating touch if Americans would just rekindle their enthusiasm for it.
Goldfield’s new book, “The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good,” notes that in 1964 nearly 80 percent of Americans said they trusted Washington all or most of the time; today, about 20 percent do. Goldfield does not explain why trust in government waned as government’s confidence waxed. The question contains its answer.
He rightly celebrates the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, but misses what distinguished it from many subsequent social programs. It was intended as a prophylactic measure against unemployment and political extremism among millions demobilized from the military. It worked. Veterans overwhelmed campuses; Goldfield says that some in California resided in fuselages of half-built airplanes. Eligibility for the bill’s benefits was contingent upon having performed military service. The bill used liberal means — subsidies for veterans’ education and homebuying — to achieve conservative results: Rather than merely maintaining people as permanent wards of government, it created an educated, property-owning middle class equipped for self-reliant striving.
In contrast, much of the Great Society’s liberalism sought to de-moralize policies, deeming repressive those policies that promoted worthy behavior. This liberalism’s political base was in government’s caring professions that served “clients” in populations disorganized by behaviors involving sex and substance abuse. Surely this goes far toward explaining what Goldfield’s narrative leaves inexplicable:
Postwar America’s political process chose Harry Truman and then Dwight Eisenhower to preserve the post-New Deal status quo. And then it chose Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater, who was (rightly) viewed as hostile to the New Deal’s legacy. But just 16 years later, the electorate, whose prior preferences Goldfield approves, made an emphatic choice that he considers a sudden eruption of dark impulses that hitherto were dormant. Goldfield does not distinguish, as Ronald Reagan did, between New Deal liberalism — of which the G.I. Bill was a culmination — and liberalism’s subsequent swerve in another direction. And he has no answer as to why the electorate, so receptive for so long to hyperactive government, by 1980 was not.
Goldfield flecks his narrative with fascinating facts: Not until 1943 did the government remove the racial classification “Hebrew” from immigration forms. Cornell University’s president promised to prevent Jewish enrollment from making the school “unpleasant for first-class Gentile students.” When Jonas Salk, who would invent the polio vaccine, applied for a fellowship, one of his recommenders wrote, “Dr. Salk is a member of the Jewish race but has, I believe, a very great capacity to get on with people.” That we cringe is a better metric of social progress than is government spending on social programs.
Goldfield’s grasp of contemporary America can be gauged by his regret that the income tax, under which the top 10 percent of earners pay more than 70 percent of the tax and the bottom 50 percent pay 3 percent, is not “genuinely progressive.” He idealizes government as an “umpire,” a disinterested arbiter ensuring fair play. Has no liberal stumbled upon public choice theory, which demystifies politics, puncturing sentimentality about politicians and government officials being more nobly and unselfishly motivated than lesser mortals? Has no liberal noticed that no government is ever neutral in society’s allocation of wealth and opportunity? And that the bigger government becomes, the more it is manipulated by those who are sufficiently confident, articulate and sophisticated to understand government’s complexities, and wealthy enough to hire skillful agents to navigate those complexities on their behalf? This is why big government is invariably regressive, transferring wealth upward.
During his long look backward through rose-tinted glasses, Goldfield, a Brooklyn native, pines for the days he remembers, or thinks he does, when his borough was defined by its devotion to the Dodgers (who decamped to Los Angeles in 1958). Such nostalgia is refuted by information: There still are seemingly millions of moist-eyed, aging members of the Brooklyn diaspora who claim to have spent every day of every summer of their halcyon youths in Ebbets Field (capacity 31,902). Actually, in the team’s greatest season, 1955, when it won its only World Series, attendance averaged 13,423, worse than the worst 2017 team average (Tampa Bay’s 15,670).
The past — including government’s salad days, when it said it could create “model cities” and other wonders, and people believed it — was often less romantic in fact than it is in memory.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.